Puccini: Turandot review | Classical CD of the week

Radvanovsky/Jaho/Kaufmann/Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Pappano
(Warner Classics)

Puccini’s original score was ‘finished’ by Franco Alfano, whose additions are heard uncut on this dramatic all-star recording

Turandot album artwork
Turandot album artwork Photograph: Parlophone Records

Antonio Pappano has never yet conducted Turandot in the theatre – and that has been a deliberate choice, he confesses in the note accompanying his new all-star recording. Previously he found the opera less interesting than Puccini’s other works, its bloodthirsty fairytale story unsophisticated. He has clearly undergone an about-turn. The performance he gets here from the forces of Rome’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia – where he is soon to hand over to Daniel Harding, after nearly two decades in charge – is theatrical from start to finish.

That’s true even though the two leads have yet to play their roles on stage. Sondra Radvanovsky has steel in her soprano for the titular princess, eager to chop off her suitors’ heads if they can’t answer her riddles. But there’s a hint of something else from her first appearance, when her imperious hauteur admits softness at the recollection of her wronged ancestor.

Jonas Kaufmann is on heroic form. He has a darker voice with a lower centre of gravity than past Calafs such as Pavarotti and Björling, but it glows where it needs to, notably in a long-breathed Nessun Dorma.

Ermonela Jaho has the breadth of tone to equal them as Liù, combined with almost impossible sweetness on the high notes. The rest of the cast is strong, too: Michael Spyres, no less, ensures the Emperor sounds powerful as well as elderly.

The recording was made under studio conditions with Covid distancing. There is a little imprecision in the chorus, but if anything this only heightens the feeling of being in the middle of a populous crowd as the drama unfolds around us, especially with Pappano whipping up playing of such controlled abandon. The palette of orchestral colour is huge and constantly shifting, Pappano drawing out the music’s particular exotic atmosphere.

Puccini died leaving Turandot unfinished. It was completed by Franco Alfano – but Toscanini, the opera’s first conductor, disliked Alfano’s work and insisted he cut about 100 bars, ending up with the version most theatres perform today. This is the first studio recording to include all of Alfano’s original music, uncut: Radvanovsky gets more to sing in the final-act duet, making Turandot’s capitulation to Calaf slightly less sudden.

The novelty of the inclusion, plus the vibrancy of Pappano’s orchestra, makes this recording distinctive even among the several excellent ones already out there. Its release coincides with Pappano’s first Turandot in the pit, at the Royal Opera House in London – a ticket that just got hotter.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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